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Respected tennis writer Joel Drucker answers your questions about the thrills and spills of the recreational player. Got a hole in your game or a question for Joel? Drop him an email at therovingplayer@thetennischannel.com and you may find yourself in a future column.
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Q) Dear Roving Player:
I'm a 58-year-old 4.5 player and have been taking lessons for more than a year. None of my regular opponents takes lessons, but many of them are always making fun of me because I share the many ideas my instructor gives me and they think I'm just some sort of obsessive. One of my buddies recently told me it wasn't worth taking lessons because we weren't likely to improve much at this age anyway. Is he right? Is it worth taking lessons?
-Wally the Warrior


A) Dear Wally:

A teaching pro I know named Brent Abel makes a nifty distinction between players and hackers. A player pursues continuous improvement without worrying obsessively about the outcome. A hacker is scared to try a new shot or strategy out of fear of losing what they presently have (even if it's meager). There are 3.5 players and world class hackers. I applaud your choice to be a player. Your opponents who belittle you are unwilling to face their own resistance to improvement, and so instead of taking responsibility they seek to drag you down into their own abyss.

Whether in tennis or any realm, the pursuit of improvement is always worth it. I admire your quest to become a better tennis player. For all the physical limitations that may occur as we age, tennis is such that increased knowledge is always an asset, enhancing our mental and physical appreciation of the game. So I say it's worth taking lessons provided you're working on the skills that truly can make you a better player. If you're like most people over 50 that I know, you probably play a lot of doubles, so I'd recommend improving your service return and overhead rather than attempt a Western forehand. Don't get seduced by teaching pros who try to impose contemporary techniques on their students. And at the same time, you better not become one of these people who learns how to take lessons at the expense of actually playing plenty of practice and even league or tournament matches. Don't hide your game under the rubric of lessons.


Q) Dear Roving Player:
I am a 4.0+ recreational player. I may have the opportunity to converse and visit with a number of former professional players in the upcoming years. These will likely be players who are still involved with the game but were never at or near the top rankings. You have mentioned that you have had the opportunity to hit with some of the former greats. While my level is clearly lower than yours, would it be inappropriate at my level for me to step on court and rally with, for example, not a former top player but someone who was ranked between 50-100 in the past 15 to 20 years? Will it be a complete waste of their time, as if they were playing with a beginner?
-Sean C.


A) Dear Sean:

First off, let me make this clear: The person at the top of the Empire State Building can barely tells who's in the lobby or on the second floor. In other words, from a pro's vantage point high up the tennis mountain, it's not much different if someone's a 4.0 or 4.5, or even a 5.0. As Australian legend Owen Davidson once said to me when speaking about a former USC All-American, "I'm sure he hits a fine ball, but that still doesn't make him a pro." Also keep in mind that a player ranked 50-100 in the past 15-20 years is roughly 99.8 percent as good as someone ranked in the top 50. In other words, don't think you're much closer in skill to someone who was ranked 87th in the world - or even 1000.

As far as the matter of wasting that player's time, were it a matter of choosing purely for the sake of tennis, an ex-pro gains little from a physical or competitive standpoint by hitting one-on-one with us recreational players. An ex-pro is much better off hitting with a quality junior or college player.

But what happens often - and I think this is what you've implied -- is that ex-pros who didn't make enough money to retire enter the world of commerce. In other words, an ex-pro knows his or her tennis skills can be an asset for generating positive vibes and revenue. Hence, as you noted, the ex-pro is often willing to hit with many players of various skill levels in hopes of creating future opportunities and will therefore engage in the forms of customer tennis you've described. In these instances, rest assured: Seeing that you're not a beginner, the ex-pro will modulate his or her ball just enough to make it enjoyable for you. So if the chance to hit with an ex-pro comes your way, grab it. Golly, they didn't agree to hit with you at gunpoint. But don't delude yourself into thinking you're aiding that person's tennis skills. And run like hell to pick up every ball.

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Oakland-based Joel Drucker is one of the world's leading tennis writers. Author of the book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, Drucker's work has appeared in a wide range of print and broadcast media, including Tennis, USTA Magazine, ESPN, CBS and The Tennis Channel. For The Tennis Channel he's worked as an on-air analyst and is co-producer of the program, Center Court with Chris Myers. An avid recreational player, Drucker's lefthanded 4.5 game attempts to combine the tactical array of Brad Gilbert with the variety of John McEnroe, a style he fondly refers to as "Spinning Ugly."